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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2002 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Julia Gorin

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Election Day of Atonement | Let's be honest. For too many people, the voting booth is a confessional and election day a sort of national Yom Kippur.

It isn't new information that people's politics often are a compensation for their own shortcomings in personal relationships and interactions with the people who actually do cross their paths, as opposed to the faceless strangers who don't--those much worried about Miserables.

The most caricatured example is Hillary Clinton who, as Peggy Noonan writes in her book "The Case Against Hillary Clinton," once declared, "I'm going to start thanking the woman who cleans the restroom in the building that I work in. I want to start seeing her as a human being."

But many people already see building cleaners as bipedal, language-capable hominids with opposable thumbs like the rest of us. Take me, for example. There is no one who is invisible to me. And that's because I'm a nice person. Too nice sometimes. Even after random encounters with strangers, I've been known to replay conversations in my head just to make sure I didn't say anything that might have inadvertently ruined someone's day or made them feel diminished somehow.

Behaviorally blind to distinctions of social class, I have a greater social conscience than the socially conscious. Because I do my part on a micro level--in situations that are within my immediate control. Rather than play absolution politics, some of which attempts to equalize society, I believe individual behavior should be our instinctive attempt to produce that effect organically. Therefore, I can afford to practice more honest politics; I don't have to repent on Election Day.

But too many people do just the reverse. They figure that because they vote "nice" at the polls that Tuesday in November, they don't have to play nice the other 364 days. The voting booth is used to achieve the kind of catharsis one might feel after going to confession, or to a synagogue on the holy day of Atonement -- renewing a voter's, or practitioner's, license to behave like a jackass the rest of the year.

In this I am not knocking Yom Kippur nor, more generally, religious tradition. I'm knocking the way many practitioners unwittingly use it. For instance, many people don't know that on Yom Kippur, the idea is to come into the day as "clean" as possible, having acknowledged one's wrong-doing, having asked for forgiveness, up to three times if necessary, from those directly affected by one's misdeeds, and having determined to not repeat the offenses. Only then is the Creator's forgiveness to be appealed to, to take care of whatever one might have overlooked.

The day is not there for people to unload a year-full of accumulated sins only to start racking up new ones after the break-fast.

A friend of a friend told the story of how a partner in the law firm where she works a few years ago sent out a firm-wide email on Yom Kippur eve, saying that in case he said or did anything to anyone over the past year that might have made anyone feel in any way diminished, then he apologizes. While this is more than the world gets out of some people, it betrays the distinct possibility that this is not a person who holds himself accountable for his words and deeds on a specific, case by case basis.

My own experience over the last Jewish high holidays was to observe a father and two sons in yarmulkes walking out of a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side the Saturday before Yom Kippur Eve Sunday. A dowdily-dressed but lucid stranger approached them with what seemed like a specific question. The three shrugged him off, one quite literally, and continued on their way, walking and talking. They didn't even look at him. So my husband, dog and I asked him what he needed, to which the visibly affronted man responded, "I just want to know which way the post office is." We pointed him in the right direction. It was simple and took only a few seconds.

This past Yom Kippur I did not join my Upper East Side neighbors at synagogue. But then, I didn't vote for Al Gore.

But my doorman did--Michael, who finds any reason he can to yell at delivery people bringing carryout to the building's residents. Why did Michael vote for Al Gore? Because Democrats care about the little guy.

Presidents and their respective politics can be illuminating here. In a July interview with Agence France Presse, long-time White House tailor Georges de Paris related his experiences with the various presidents he's fitted. He called Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush "friendliest," adding that "Reagan spoke a lot…He gave me jellybeans….Clinton was very demanding, cold and always occupied. He was unaware of me completely….Jimmy Carter…never said anything."

Yet these leaders' respective behaviors are ignored in light of their politics, even though the former is often the driving force behind the latter. Whereas Bill Clinton, for example, signed on to the World Court and to every environmental and social cause or demand, his successor minced few words in saying no to the World Court and no to the Kyoto Treaty. But then, Bush has a clear conscience. A clear conscience is what voters should bring to, rather than take away from, the polls. And voting should be based on informed decisions, not on any personal subtext that may be informing those decisions.

At the risk of sounding syrupy, each day presents an opportunity for reflection and self-examination as regards others, for apologizing to the offended party on a case by case basis rather than to god on the day of atonement or to society on Election Day of Atonement. If one is not dismissive of his fellow man, or at least atones for his words or actions as he transgresses, it will cure the compulsion to compensate at the confessional or at the polls.

Not that religion is practiced out of guilt, or that all people who vote Democratic do so out of guilt. Certainly plenty behave in a manner consistent with the way they vote. But voting Democratic can sure make a person feel better about him or herself if there's something that needs feeling better about. This is especially true with wealthy Democrats who aren't truly going to feel the impact of the socialist economic policies they support.

Extreme case in point: Bill Gates. Despite the Democratic-led break-up of his company, the man votes Democratic and suffers the fools who protest him outside the World Trade Organization conference every year. At the last one, he said that globalization favors rich countries, so that "people who feel the world is tilted against them will spawn the kind of hatred that is very dangerous for all of us….I think it's a healthy sign that there are demonstrators in the streets.''

Wherefore this rich man's self loathing?

Gates, a famously unlikable guy, is known for having engaged in some pretty manipulative deal-making with smaller and more vulnerable companies on Microsoft's climb up, stepping over bodies to find the kind of success that Microsoft ultimately did. He's done things in business that have been of questionable morality, if not legality. Without apologizing. Today he is a vocal Democrat who contributes to the Democratic National Committee. The middle classes be damned.

The mini Bill Gateses of the world have to vote Democratic, or they simply wouldn't be able to live with themselves.

So when my fellow New Yorkers ask me why I don't vote Democratic, I joke in the same way I do when my fellow tribesmen demand why I'm not in shul on Yom Kippur: "That's for the sinners!"

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2002, Julia Gorin